Sunday, April 29, 2018

Past the terrible twos, Badlands kinda grows up

I'm a week behind on Into the Badlands, since season 3 began last week and we're a few hours from episode 2 hitting the screen. Episode 1 of the new season was your standard re-start, laying out the storylines: Widow and Moon's efforts to solidify control of the Badlands; Tilda and the Iron Rabbits being the ultimate outsiders, even to the people they're trying to help; Sunny trying to keep Henry alive even while discovering he's infected with The Gift; and the arrival of The Pilgrim. And, oh, yeah. MK, Prince of Angst, is still around, too.

From a general perspective, I appreciate the fact that they've maintained the wider world introduced last season. Even in a post-apocalyptic scenario, there's still a lot of land and a lot of surviving people out there. In that vein, I appreciate that they've taken care to demonstrate that the natural societal outgrowths and reactions are still present, even in a much-transformed society. The baronial war between The Widow and Chau is displacing, injuring, and orphaning a lot of people. Showing Lydia turning the former isolationist/pacifist religion into a refugee center is a smart turn in that respect. It's a demonstration of the fact that the writers have a larger vision, such that even when society has broken down from our perspective and then breaks down again with the world that is the Badlands, people will still try to band together and recreate the structures necessary to get it moving again.

The arrival of The Pilgrim introduces another of my favorite societal manifestations: religion. While it's possible to see MK's experiences at the monastery as a manifestation of religion, it's also possible to interpret that as a philosophical institution. While traditional kung fu monasteries in film that practice both control and exploitation of their arts have a grounding in Buddhism, my perspective on Buddhism has always been one of philosophy, rather than religion. Religion is a belief in a higher power. Buddhism is a belief in a higher state of being from within oneself. There's no debate about The Pilgrim in this case, however, as he simply announces himself as a "messiah" when his two acolytes use their Gift to slaughter one of Chau's border outposts. Fanatical devotion dropped into a world of opportunists (like Bajie) and cynical politics (the barony system) is always a good springboard. The meta question beyond that is: Now that The Pilgrim is exploiting the breach in the wall around the Badlands, I wonder if we'll see any further explanation for how that wall was built, why it was built, and what's so important inside the Badlands that needed to be protected? Is it just the Widow's oil or something more?

Speaking of The Gift, that angle is starting to lose its luster. At first, we had an instance that seemed like it was unique: MK was a potential threat all by himself. Then we discover that there's a whole monastery of people who've trained themselves to restrain it and are actively pursuing those few who also possess it. Now, we know that not only has The Pilgrim recruited at least two people to serve him that are Gifted, but... sigh... baby Henry is also Gifted, because why wouldn't the son of Han and Leia become the greatest user of the dark side of the Force? Coincidence? No. Henry already carries emotional importance to Sunny, who's a killer trying to protect an infant in a dangerous world (Lone Wolf and Cub, FTW), and to the audience, many of whom will naturally gravitate toward a child and the story connection leading back to the tragedy of Veil from the last two seasons. Did we really need the magic powers to be part of that storyline, too?

Speaking of Bajie, while we're on the somewhat negative side of things, do we really need this kind of "troublemaker" character here? Isn't there enough trouble already? The writers have constructed a pretty ruthless world and yet this self-interested con man has somehow escaped being impaled all this time, despite constantly being captured or enslaved in one fashion or another? Sonny has shown that he's willing to chase down a teenager and execute him for daring to try to hunt him down. After all the contemptible shit that Bajie has pulled, both last season and in this very episode, you're telling me that Sonny wouldn't have just eviscerated him by now? I get that he's one of the gateways to actual knowledge about the wider world, even as he decries the mystical city of Azra for not responding to his radio signal at the end of last season, but that screams "device" to me. He's a bridge out of tedious exposition for the writers, since he can conveniently fill in gaps in the other characters' knowledge while also serving to create new subplots because his deviousness and desire to cheat the system are simply uncontrollable. It's a facade and it's an annoying one; usually cloaked in some kind of comedic trappings, but neither Nick Frost nor the writers have apparently figured out how to do comedy in this dangerous world, so it comes off more as something that needs to be endured, rather than enjoyed.

On the acting front, I think Emily Beecham is growing into her role as the Widow, as there were far fewer "Camera closeup because I'm a badass" moments. But certain idiosyncrasies, like continually preaching her vision of a "better world" while continuing to farm poppies to make money to create that better world are disconcerting. We all have our crutches and if this is the way the writers are working her "end justifies the means" angle in the broad view, I'm OK with it. It's just one of those things that kind of makes you stop and scratch your head when she goes off on a tirade about being different from the other barons. Similarly, there's nothing as jarring for me in the whole series than watching her fighting in ridiculously spiked heels. Yes, they're already doing fantastic feats and there are psychic powers (MK and others) involved, so suspension of disbelief is already a thing. But nothing breaks that suspension more easily for me than watching an accomplished martial artist engage in combat wearing high heels. It's just ridiculous. No one with any choice to make whatsoever would subject themselves to that. Most martial arts are about balance. The arts displayed in Badlands, while fanciful, also involve feats of body control and balance. Both of those are made more difficult while being forced forward onto your toes.

Nathaniel Moon's return is welcome, since Sherman Augustus is an actor with some gravitas and the complexity of his character creates some interesting possibilities. Similarly, Tilda's Iron Rabbits angle has depth. She's trying to make up for the depredations of her mother, but at the same time gets rejected by those she's nominally helping because of the attention she might bring. There's a tenuous dividing line between doing things because they're right and doing them because you're seeking revenge. The two overlap frequently and I think building that kind of inner conflict in Tilda that manifests in how others treat her is a smart turn for a character that could easily have been lost among the other more prominent storylines.

The contrast to that is MK. While I've never been a particular fan of the character and his surrounding story, since it reminds me way too much of a River Tam thing, a la Firefly (the incredible power within this one person in the whole world (or galaxy) might destroy it!), the turn it took last season really only made it worse. Now we not only know that the Gift is about as common as red hair, removing any kind of suspense or trepidation about its presence, but MK doesn't even have the Gift anymore, so he's free to sulk not only about being the prize prisoner of the Widow, but also about the fact that he's not even worth it any longer. That's a recipe for teenage angst if I've ever seen one and the character plays right into it. I'm not sure why recent writers, especially for AMC shows, seem to think that young people being involved in their shows simply demands a healthy dose of teenage pouting about everything that's going wrong in their lives (see: Carl in The Walking Dead for its first 4 or 5 seasons.) I mean, sure, we've all been there as teenagers and many of us even live with some that do the same thing on a regular basis, but this is the one aspect of realism for characters that I could probably do without. At this point, in Badlands, it qualifies as an annoying distraction taking us away from the far more interesting people doing things elsewhere.

I started watching Badlands in kind of morbidly curious "How are they going to make this work?" manner and I'm still kind of there. I'm not compelled to sit down in front of the TV every Sunday in the same I am Game of Thrones or Better Call Saul. But I am interested in some of the directions they're moving (Pilgrim, Tilda), so I think I'm going to keep up with it on an episode-by-episode basis, especially once I move at least some of this writing over to a new site in the next couple weeks. So, stay tuned and all that.